Masculinity is always made in a time, a place, and in a culture or cultures. In Fathers, Sons and Lovers I’ve written about being a man in Penrith- a town that grew up near a river and which had later on a railway connecting it to Sydney. There are special qualities about boys growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or in far-flung parts of China. Or in the islands of Samoa.
The present study looks at boys in the outskirts of a large Australian city. Beaches are far distant and hard to get to. There are no mountains nearby to ski on. Public transport is infrequent and unreliable. And so we come to a project about boys and how they interact with school.
Q: You’ve just woken up on a school day. What are you thinking?
A: Maybe there’s been some massive disaster, like a war or something. And then I won’t have to go to school today !
ORIGINS OF THIS PROJECT
This project was started because of concern about the performance of boys in the school. Many problems in the school seem to point to boys. Boys are showing up- for all the wrong reasons. Their academic success is often weak. Behaviour problems are evident among many boys. This points to a lack of effective engagement by boys in the life of the school. That includes: boys not in school choirs or band; boys not getting awards for best effort; boys not volunteering for various tasks in school governance. It also indicates a too-faint participation in the life of school as a whole. These indicators are consistent with many schools around the western world.
Staff were told about the project and mostly seem to be responding positively. Several took up eagerly some of the questions that were put to them before the researcher arrived. This suggests that there is an awareness of the problem with boys. That awareness is a very necessary first step before any school-wide action can begin.
The playground is a big feature in a boy’s day and we must give it careful attention. It was something that seemed to be one of the main things that featured when boys talked about their day at school.
What would most teachers say about this? And the absence of the classroom as an important factor in how boys think about their day at school?
Not for the first time, it was plain to me that in the playground, girls sit around in groups. Overwhelmingly, boys are running around or active in some sport or doing something else. So why would we expect boys to sit happily in class all day? Why don’t boys like being in school, asked an English study. The answer: boys want to be outside. They don’t want to sit in classrooms all day. And there was more along those lines.
CAN WE EXPAND BOYS EMOTIONAL AWARENESS?
Some staff said teachers don’t see boys in all their emotional complexity. Boys can’t come to school when ill or feeling sad or depressed: they can’t seem to deal with it in those circumstances. It’s doubtful that most boys understand their own emotional state at most times. Sebastian Kraemer’s piece, ‘The fragile male’ on this website reminds us that boys are immature, compared with girls, at every stage. Hopefully teachers don’t keep reminding them of this, but provide opportunities for boys to expand their emotional awareness. Thi
s is a special challenge for English teachers, given that research says we learn a lot of our emotional understanding from fiction – and few males read fiction, especially when young. This might suggest that drama has some special value for boys; and it’s something that often does appeal when boys can use it to gain attention in a positive way.
1. THE FOCUS GROUPS
Two focus groups were held to try to tap into what boys felt about school. The research says that people will tell harsh and bitter truths to an outsider more readily than to someone inside the organisation. We did our best under the circumstances to get boys talking honestly. One member of staff had to be present because of Education Department regulations.
A fact of life these days is that a male being with younger males needs to be extra careful. I steered carefully away from anything that seemed too private. For example, the boys said girls were important in the life of a boy. That was noted and then we moved on to other things. There also seemed to be some silences around parents that I did not hasten to investigate. There are other typical features of this kind of research: people present an idealised self, and tend to give the researcher what they think he wants. These things must be registered before we can look at the data.
I think we can have a fair degree of faith in the findings. They ring true. There are echoes with hundreds of schools around the western world.
DESCRIBING THE BOYS
The boys I met impressed me favourably. [I can only judge the boys I spoke with.] They spoke with conviction and clarity. They have wit, humour and insight. They show signs of growing into men who will do something useful in society and who will be reasonable partners. That is a compliment to their teachers and parents. More could be done to develop boys’ social sense and communication, but the groundwork is there.
BOYS’ OVERALL FEELINGS ABOUT SCHOOL
These boys are not positive about school. In a sentence- the boys feel that on the whole school is something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Four periods in a day was good. Why? Because there were only four. There were echoes of the principal in another school who said “A boy sits in school all day thinking of the game of footy he will play at 3.30”. They thought school was a bit fairer to girls. “It’s never girls that are the bad ones”. Girls were seen by teachers as mainly good; boys , not so good. A fight in Year 9 or an argument with a teacher gave a boy a reputation. Many boys got a reputation that followed them all their school lives. If this was a “good kid” that was fine. But if not, “a bad rep” meant the kid could only get worse. “And sir, we change and we grow up”, one said. Two boys argue and the teacher rants at “you boys…”. Or the whole class is kept in because of three or four kids. Boys have a keen sense that sometimes, school isn’t fair to them.
DO TEACHERS UNDERSTAND BOYS?
There were mixed responses to this question. The boys felt some teachers did; some didn’t. One suggested that teachers didn’t “get” boys in important ways. Some would say “today we’re going to have fun” and then bring out a crossword. Boys were not impressed. The boy said this pointed to the gulf between “teacher fun”: and “boys’ fun”. Or they would have Smiggles as a reward for good academic work. These are too female-coded for any boy to receive as a present.
Boys don’t want to sit at desks and be talked at. They resent it and they drift off, lost in a “sea of blahs”, as Rowe says. Teachers talk and talk (we all do!) and aren’t effective sometimes in sussing out who understands the work. Brutally put, this might be “I told them all about World War I so they must understand it”. Or teachers do what most of us have done: “hands up if you don’t understand”. Few boys will do so, they said; their ego prevents it. More sophisticated checking needs to be done of who really understands things thoroughly. Boys suggested that they want to be cool guys (my phrase, not theirs) and do NOT want to be seen as dumb. Nor do they want to be seen as swots, nor as teacher’s pets. Anyone who thinks this is easy is deluded.
I suggest more group-work might be useful:
Get a group of four to list fors and againsts.
Debate in pairs the most important reasons why you need to eat more protein.
“Tell your neighbour why Germany went to war”.
Any of these might be useful sometimes: thirty conversations in a room instead of two people speaking and the rest drifting off somewhere else.
Boys are not good listeners . But teacher talk is usually what we do in classrooms. Why? You can talk at boys for fifteen minutes about you want them to do . You tell them to start writing a summary of what was said, and you get- “Sir what are we supposed to do?” Frederick Jones writes a lot about responding to ‘helpless hand-raisers’.
How should we reward boys? We need to have this discussion with classes, often. Boys said that good rewards for boys were : movie tickets; chocolate; and a walk outside. PAT (free time) was liked. The boys liked teachers who said “finish this in 20 minutes and you can chat”, or similar. They enjoyed walking and talking with mates between classes. Could we use this more often as a reward?
Boys don’t study subjects, they study teachers. A boy wants to work for a teacher he likes.
So who’s a good teacher? These are often young (whatever that means in a boy’s mind)But I have seen in an English school a man of some fifty years who cradled the class in his hands through clever use of praise, using fifty or sixty different phrases. Boys do want to have a joke, they said. If the teacher bores them the boys “turn it off”. They said they do take a like – or dislike- to a teacher and that governs how they act in that class. Some teachers start out being nice but then get crankier and crankier. They felt girls were smarter at getting what they wanted from a teacher. Perhaps girls learn by learning how to manage Dad?
A good teacher could make any subject enjoyable. The boys were engaged, they said, when they were excited by doing something.
Most of the boys – not all- want to go outside more. They know they have to write, but the writing must have a point. They wanted more choices in what they did. Some had made bad choices and were stuck with them.
BOYS ON: WHAT SHOULD CHANGE?
Grubby desks with gum that caught on boys’ knees.
Teachers who seemed to be always correcting and criticising them
Six hours of school plus three hours’ homework was too much.
They wanted more choices in what they did and how they did it.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF SCHOOL
“Year 8 (when they began) was overwhelming”, they said. “It wasn’t like primary school. There was nowhere to sit and many of the seats had bird poo on them”. They didn’t know where to go for classes.
They would tell a beginning student “don’t pick on bigger guys- they retaliate. Find somewhere quiet to sit, if you can”.
Can we use well-chosen older boys to shepherd new arrivals around and give them a smile and a welcome? Some training might be necessary.
WHO’S IMPORTANT IN A BOY’S LIFE?
Girls, a number said. Mums. Bus drivers who take us places. “Teachers who get that you get tired and let you have a rest sometimes.” Mates help you out. “Dads are stricter than mums, but they’ve been a boy and they know where you’re at. “ Boys after divorce had difficulties: It’s hard going from “Mum’s rules” to “Dad’s rules” when you have week about.
WHAT DID YOU DO LAST SUMMER?
Some boys stay home most of the time. Some are in families who drive to the beach. Some have siblings to look after. Some have skate parks close enough.
No boy spoke of chores. One teacher said that in this area there is nothing for boys to do. Frankly in these circumstances most boys would be bored and looking for mischief wherever they could find it, preferably where they wouldn’t be caught.
The playground needs to be thought of as an arena. For many things: for making friends; for getting a reputation; an arena for troublemakers to throw their weight around. Places of safety need to be planned, especially for shy or younger boys. A number take refuge in the library and play games etc. One teacher has dogs outside her room and boys love to pat them. Could we use this as a reward somehow?
2. FURTHER THOUGHTS
BOYS MUST BE DOING MORE
School: what is it? It is something imposed on the boys, rather than something they actively create and feel part of. I feel the school could use boys’ talents more effectively.. If everything is done for them, it feels that school is something other, rather than “ our school which we are a vital part of.” Once again this points to our need to understand thoroughly what real engagement of the boys would mean.
In other schools, I have seen boys leading assemblies. I have seen boys and girls leading dance classes. In some schools, boys help teach boys music. Both of these were at primary schools; did these boys do such things in their primary schools? I noticed a Samoan boy who said he didn’t have his ukulele today. Could some of these boys teach ukulele, for example? How can we tap into the talents boys have, so that teachers help boys run key parts of the school? This might be worth brainstorming, perhaps in small groups.
I’d like to see less of kids sitting still, and more activity in classrooms. Boys must move more often if we are to keep them engaged. Drama, debates, group-work, making models, all could be tried. Why isn’t there more music in the school? We could try all of these. We must expect sometimes to fail. Anything is better than giving up.
We could work a lot harder in working out what is actually learnt, rather than what is taught. Someone on the staff mentioned camps. Camps would mean a lot of work. But the young energetic staff I saw would cope with that. It might be the most memorable experience boys had of school. Very often, field trips are, according to one US source. Brophy and Alleman, (1996: 100ff). I would have the boys involved very closely in the organisation of these camps. Sport, bushwalking, canoeing and a revue might be key parts of it.
The power of music and other creative arts is suggested by Brian Caldwell’s report on using creative arts to improve literacy in disadvantaged schools.
“What did you do at school?”
“Dad, today we got up and performed a song in front of the whole year and I played drums! It was great !”
Nobody is going to say “Mum today we filled our notebooks up again”.
Brophy and Alleman say that students recall studying themes. For example, they might recreate Macchu Picchu, or dramatise the interaction between Aztecs and conquistadores. History should be a lived, real experience. The school might have to get used to more noise and creative chaos.
A SCHOOL OF OVER 2000
A school of 2000 plus will need careful attention to detail. Left to themselves, boys will fall through the cracks. As someone said, the concern is not the top and the bottom achievers. It’s the large middle, boys who cruise under the radar and just manage to stay out of trouble. Many large schools use family groupings such as Houses or roll call groups. I’d like to see the boys with more of the belonging that we seem to see among the Samoans.
In many cases, dads are missing in action in the lives of boys. There are a dozen reasons: perhaps they are ‘fly in, fly out’ dads. Some dads and struggling with separation and divorce: and research says that boys suffer more in the bitter struggles that ensue than girls do (Kraemer). Some dads just work long hours. Some are emotionally unavailable. Galvanising dads would potentially do a lot to engage boys. It would mean hard work from the school’s admin and consistent encouragement. This is not the first generation who grew up without a dad at breakfast every day.
1. Everyone who works in the school needs to be made aware of the problems with boys and must work hard to include boys more effectively in the life of the school. Working together is the key.
2. English is a problem for boys around the world. There might be more that the library could do for boys, if we put the question directly to boys in each grade: what do they like to read? (and it can’t all be easy stuff). Books need to be looked at hard so they appeal both to boys and girls. We should offer more choice in books to read.
3. The English Department could tackle some of the big subjects for boys after asking them directly. Perhaps Being a Man: 1900: Being a Man, 2015; Boys and Girls in the 1930s…. I don’t see why some similar themes couldn’t be done on The Changing Role of Women, and so on.
4. Parents must be made aware of what the problem is and how it will be tackled. We could ferret out some important or well-organised dads and seek their help and advice. We could signal to dads, to mums and to boys the importance of dads in the lives of boys. In my experience mums welcome this. A workshop or discussion group for dads could work. “FIFO” dads ( who fly in to some distant place to work, and fly home for a few days some week or so later, and repeat ) need special thought to make sure they are present in the lives of boys. Phone calls, emails, Facebook and so on must be considered.
5. I would find ways of asking more groups of boys some key questions:
– Why are girls achieving better than boys?
– Are you happy with these results?
– How could we get boys learning better?
– How do you like to learn?
– What rewards should we give boys who achieve?
– Do you prefer to learn by: teacher talk: group-work: make your own notes; debates; working on a problem in pairs; and so on. This step is essential.
If we listen carefully, then we will improve participation, at least. We must show boys that we are prepared to act on what they said to us. Girls would have a lot to say about all this and they will want to be listened to.
6. We must keep teachers on board. I think the typical lesson needs a lot of attention. In general, I’d ask teachers to think harder about what children are doing in lessons, rather than what the teacher will say or do.
For example, what is done to make sure kids understand the lesson? Who summarises the key learnings of the lesson? Is this left only to the teacher? Does it have to happen that way? Geoff Hannan provides a range of activities which involve pupils in summarising what was learnt. The children work out what’s critical and might write it down, or tell a partner. Or they make up a cartoon. Or a role-play. But they are actively encapsulating what they learnt.
Avoid at all costs as the only lesson conclusion the teacher saying, as the bell goes and everyone bangs desks and scrapes chairs, “Do the next set for homework” .
7. These boys show signs of wit, intelligence and potential. But -in a few words: boys here aren’t doing enough. We’re not developing their potential for good, or getting them to mentor and guide younger boys while developing their leadership skills in the process. School is too passive. Boys don’t listen well: why then do we think they are learning when we talk at them most of the school day? We want to grab their ingenuity, their sense of fun, their imagination. We should be using boys as leaders and shapers of what is done in school. Perhaps teachers will have to give up some of their control. But if we want improvement, we must change. One definition of foolishness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
8. New arrivals need a well-picked older boy to lead them through their first week. Mentoring is never simple but it could have good results in giving boys more belonging.
9. Boys who know what paid outside work is seem to find school more enjoyable even as a comparison (it’s easier). One boy snared a much-desired job with a clever resume. What could we do to bring employers in one afternoon? Or show boys how to present themselves to an employer? Perhaps a day on writing a resume and one on interviews would be seen as relevant to boys. And perceived relevance is critical.
10. Teachers need a thorough grounding in what real engagement would mean. I don’t see a lot of it at present. The simple facts say it loudly: poorer academic results; boys complaining of being bored; boys showing up in discipline; boys low on commitment to leadership.
11. We must get children outside more. And doing more. An outdoor trek looks like an excellent idea. A year camp for Year 8, Year 9 etc is one memorable experience that will help bring more fun into the school. Others are drama, role-plays, model-making and so on. We want boys actively learning, not bored in ‘sit-stilleries’. Boys must have more choices in what they do. Boys who are engaged will want to be part of enjoyable learning rather than mucking up to escape being in class.
12. Extra-curricular activities were mentioned but not explored fully. Would a bunch of lunch-time clubs would give boys more meaningful things to do? Could we match up boys’ interests with teacher abilities? Boys who are busy learning ukulele or guitar or drums or gym won’t be stirring up trouble in the playground. Could we get some community participation? Take a group to sing to old people? There seem to be lots of footy played, but more sport could also be done. If we can unlock boys’ potential, many things are possible.
The School considered the recommendations. A program was begun to examine the recommendations point by point. A plan of action was put to the staff and a series of things were put in place. To date consideration has been given to the playground and what happens there. Determined efforts are being made to “rev up” classrooms. As a summative step, a camp was held with some male teachers and younger boys. Further steps will take place in due course.